Email notifications are powerful drivers of user engagement with SaaS apps. But not all of these messages are created equal. The best alerts convey key information and make interaction feel almost effortless, while poorly designed notifications are counterproductive and result in decreased engagement or even customer churn.

I’ve received some really effective notifications. But I’ve received many more lackluster ones. I’m sure you have, too. Some were monospaced, plaintext messages spit out by a process deep in the bowels of an ancient ERP system. Others were so overloaded with competing messages, images, CTAs, and other marketing gizmos that the basic utility of the notification was lost in the noise.

So, when it comes to notifications and similar transactional emails, what differentiates the good, the bad, and the ugly? In other words, what makes a great product email? Our team has looked at lots of real-world examples. Here are our takeaways.

1. The subject line is all-important. Email marketers have made an art and science of writing subject lines that yield high open rates, but remember that notifications are different from most marketing messages. While opening a message is a sign of user engagement, the most effective email notifications are written so that the subject line is the message. Even if a user never opens the alert, she or he should get what’s needed just by reading the subject line.

2. Good notifications convey just one idea. Effective email alerts are highly focused messages and a perfect illustration of when “less is more.” While the email body is an opportunity for some elaboration on the core information conveyed in the subject line, but don’t be tempted to stray from that single idea. Extraneous information or visual clutter muddies the value the of the email and distracts your user from the essential message or call to action. Overloaded notifications quickly get relegated in a user’s head to the category of “useless marketing messages” and are a sure route to disengagement, unsubscribes, and even spam flags.

Example Mint Notification
Mint’s account security notification reinforces user trust with a direct, simple message.

3. Alerts should get straight to the point with a direct call to action. Email notifications are immediate, time-sensitive, and relatively frequent. Your user will give them just a glance—you might earn 5 seconds of their time at best—so it’s not the time for subtlety. Express the facts the user needs to know and provide an obvious way for him or her to take action if needed. Done.

Example LinkedIn Notification
LinkedIn’s re-engagement notification has a good value proposition and clear call to action.

4. Email notifications must be highly personalized. A notification is a nearly perfect example a triggered email. It was sent in response to a specific user action or state. So be sure that the content of the message reflects that unique situation. Being personal doesn’t mean inserting a first name and leaving it at that — every bit of the notification should reinforce the user’s specific context, actions, and needs. In fact, any information that’s not specifically personalized is suspect and something you should consider removing.

5. The best notifications reinforce the user experience. Just because email notifications should be direct and succinct, they don’t need to be blandly utilitarian. In fact, the best ones are full of personality and immediately recognizable as part of the user’s overall experience with an app or service. Through tone, voice, and visual identity, email notifications have a significant impact on a user’s impression of a service or app’s style and brand. They should be designed with as much care as any other aspect of a product’s UX.

Example Product Hunt Notification
Product Hunt’s social notification hits all the right notes.

Email notifications have a major impact on any app or site’s user experience, and they’re among the most important drivers of user engagement, retention, and growth.

What’s your experience with email notifications and other messages? Send us a tweet! We’d love to hear your point of view and the sorts of questions you run into.

Brent

P.S. Want to learn more about building a successful product with email notifications? Our recent product manager’s guide to email provides a great starting point. And when you’re ready to dig even deeper into what makes email messages like these click, check out “Designing Transactional Email to Build Brand” and “Building Trust and Loyalty with Transactional Email.”

 

Product Emails That Rock

I recently discussed several core categories of emails that are essential to SaaS applications. Nearly every app needs account activations, welcome and onboarding messages, account and security alerts, and even humble password resets, but how they’re implemented can vary widely. Today I’d like to share a few examples of really effective product emails and dive into why they work so well.

Slack’s Confirmation Email

Slack’s email confirmation makes the task clear without sacrificing a distinctive voice.

Where to find it: Whenever you sign into Slack for the first time (or from a new device), Slack will send you a confirmation email like this one.

Why it’s fantastic: Slack’s confirmation email has a lot going for it. First and foremost, it’s clear what the user needs to do. A direct subject line and headline, along with an obvious call to action and button help a user get to the point without a lot of cognitive overload. But that directness is balanced with clarifying information that puts the ask in context—as well as a style and voice that’s consistent with Slack’s distinctive brand.

Product Hunt’s Social Notification

 

Product Hunt’s social notification drives engagement.

Where to find it: When a Product Hunt user is followed by another user, she or he will get an email like this one.

Why it’s fantastic: Shares and notifications are a staple of any social platform, and they’re a key driver of engagement and growth. A major reason Product Hunt’s take overachieves is that it’s actually full of content that reinforces the site’s social activity and perceived value. And, like Slack’s earlier example, details like the subject line emoji and word choices nicely capture the playfulness of the Product Hunt user experience.

Eatsa’s Transaction Receipt

Eatsa’s receipt is so much more than a generic transactional email.

Where to find it: Eatsa sends patrons a receipt like this one shortly after they order a meal.

Why it’s fantastic: Eatsa is a modern, app-enabled automat. There are few or no staff members in the front of the house; an Eatsa store is all sleek glass and LCD touchscreens. So, it’s really important that the business deliver a great customer experience in other ways. This receipt is a good example of that. It serves the functional need of providing a transaction receipt, but it goes well beyond rudimentary transactional emails by adopting a clear voice, employing crisp visual design, and integrating a live customer survey into the body of the email. One more touch? The “Talk to a human” link at the bottom helps soften any sense of a sterile experience.

SparkPost’s Personalized Data Report Card

 

SparkPost’s personalized deliverability report card uses data to provide high-value information.

Where to find it: Every SparkPost user receives this weekly summary of their basic email delivery performance.

Why it’s fantastic: Here, I’m going to show off one of my own babies. SparkPost’s weekly email deliverability report card is a great example of how SaaS businesses can use data-driven email updates to provide additional value and actionable information to users. In this case, SparkPost provides an at-a-glance weekly review of account performance with health metrics and usage details. In addition to raw metrics, the report shows relative performance to other senders and links to best practices and support resources—at precisely the moment a user is most likely to be interested in the topic.

Learn More

I hope these fantastic product emails have inspired you to think about how email can drive better user engagement with your own app. And if you’re just getting started with notifications and other types of product emails, be sure to check out “The Product Manager’s Guide to Email.” It’s a great resource to help product teams get up to speed.

Do you have an example of a great product email? I’d love to see it. Send us a tweet! Even better—submit it to the Sparky Awards for a chance to win Best Product Email of the Year, with all the glory (and prizes) that go with it!

—Amie